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August 18, 2000
It's the glitter; not the goldRohit Brijnath
When it comes to India's history at the Olympic Games the phrase - 'the facts speak for themselves' is cause for apprehension. With good reason.
Since 1896 there have been 24 Olympic Games.
In that 100 years, India has won four individual medals. Two silvers in the 200m and 200m hurdles by Norman Pritchard in 1900; a freestyle wrestling bronze in the bantamweight division by K.Jadhav in 1952; and a bronze in the men's singles tennis by Leander Paes in 1996. No gold.
Let's give that some perspective. Surinam, Algeria, Turkey, countries so small you'd need a microscope to find them on the globe, whose cumulative population might fit into Calcutta with elbow room to spare, have won a gold each. Or let's put it another way. In just one Olympics (1992), Jamaica won more individual medals (3 silver, 1 bronze) than we have in an entire century.
Still, next month we will send a squad of 60 or so to Sydney. Why? The hockey team, weightlifters and tennis doubles pair aside the rest have as much chance of a medal as J Y Lele has of giving a quote he won't contradict next morning.
Let's turn to hockey.
In 24 Olympics India has won 8 golds, 1 silver, 2 bronze, a total of 11 medals, which is why we haven't stopped preening. We should have because we haven't won a bronze since 1972 and a gold since 1964 (yes, yes, I know we won in 1980, but let's be honest, we came seventh at Montreal 1976 and only 2 of the 11 teams that participated there turned up at the boycott-hit Moscow Games. Point being we were not truly the best in the world).
Still, present coach V Bhaskaran says, "It is my strong belief that the boys have worked hard, so definitely they should get the gold." Jeez, what's the rest of the world doing: lolling on the beach glugging beer? Considering we came eighth in Atlanta, and fail to qualify for the Champions Trophy with alarming regularity, Bhaskaran's clearly reading into some failed gypsy's cracked crystal ball.
Look, I want Indian players, teams, to win. But two questions bother me:
First, considering our impeccable consistency in not making the individual medal podium, should we continue to send inflated contingents to the Olympics?
Second, if we're going to send them anyway, why can't they be realistic?
Coming fifth or seventh isn't a crime; but putting stickers in your locker rooms that read YOU DON'T WIN SILVER, YOU LOSE GOLD (Nike ad from 1996) and talking big about medals only to return having come 23rd in a field of 23, is deceitful. If you're going to brag, fine, just back it up with substance.
But let's retreat to question one. Should we send so many people to Sydney?
My answer's no.
Baron de Coubertin's statement of "It's not the winning that matters but the taking part" is romantic and wise, except that we've taken it too literally.
Top athletes will tell you we're going to the Games to win gold not to make up the numbers. Well, sorry pal, we are.
It's said there are no free rides in sport, and it's time we stopped ours. I'm sick of the Olympics masquerading as a shopping spree, I'm sick of athletes who run far below their personal best because they think it wouldn't matter even if they did, I'm sick of talk about lack of high-altitude training, proper spikes and a bad diet. Sure it happens, but how come only to us? When it comes to excuses we're always gold-medal favourites.
One more thing. All this debate about the Olympics being an 'exposure' event, well, it's garbage. You want exposure run in Europe, box in Cuba, lift weights in China, whatever. The Olympics is not an 'exposure event', it's a 'competition event'.
Officials say athletes will learn about mental toughness, acquire big race temperament, taste the flavour of world class competition at an Olympics. No, the only thing we learn is how far behind we are. Like 25 seconds or so slower than the 400m freestyle world record in swimming, which means when the champion’s towelled off, accepted his medal and gone home we’re about to touch home. No one needs to go to Sydney to find that out, take my word for it.
I'm not saying every Indian athlete who attends the Olympics should return with a medal. There are shooters, badminton players, who have qualified according to the international norm, who won’t win a tie-pin but who, through sweat and tears have earned their place in the sun. They are the deserving.
But for the others whom we select ourselves, like the judokas for instance, there has to be an explanation more convincing than '‘exposure'’. No wonder we believe that federation officials are pushing for the inclusion of no-chance athletes simply because they themselves can have that holiday in Australia they always dreamed of.
If we’re still determined to send athletes let’s at be honest about their limitations. For athletics officials to even murmur about bronze suggests they’ve been out in the sun too long without a hat. Why can’t we be refreshingly candid like hockey player Mukesh Kumar, who says pointedly, “We should not be overconfident and talk about gold.”
No, federation officials must be required to state their goals. That my wrestler will reach the semi finals, that my thrower came 12th in Atlanta but will come 10th this time, that my runner is improving rapidly and we will be satisfied if she records a personal best. Two things happen when you run in elite company: either you get intimidated--"oh God these guys are too fast"----or running with the best pushes you to run faster than before. Indian Olympic teams don't seem to recognise the difference.
An honesty of purpose is essential and we must hold them too that. If they fail---performing way below potential--- there must be accountability, not of the athlete but of the officials who sent them and yawned while they ran.
We need to remember that the word 'Olympian' is an honour. It's not a label handed out on the street like a gift voucher.
It's something you earn.
Mail Rohit Brijnath
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